Garden adventures without borders

00:32, Nov 13 2012

Head down and bottom up, wrenching long strings of ivy away from the trunks of overgrown bay trees, michaeleas and pittosporums, I begin to wonder if it would be easier to sell up and move to a garden that's already in good order.

When we planted in this spot 20 years ago we were aiming for an easy to maintain shrubbery. Now the shrubs are decently sized trees and invasive ivy from a nearby fence has moved in.

I remember the conversation about the parent plant of this pesky ivy.

Me: "Wouldn't ivy look romantic on this fence?"

Husband Steve, doubtfully: "Hmm, ivy can be hard to control."

Me, confidently: "Of course we'll be able to control it!"


Yes, I was naive about the character of ivy, and, as it turned out, equally naive about much else to do with gardening.

But I was enthusiastic, and I still am, just more realistic about the relationship between my time and energy and the havoc vegetation can wreak if you turn your back on it for what seems like the shortest time.

Twenty-two years ago we took over a garden of more than an acre (0.4 hectare) that had been developed in the 1950s. Subsequent owners had maintained the garden in its original form, mowing lawns, or not, planting and abandoning vegetable gardens, letting a hedge of pittosporums spread out and block a driveway, planting inconveniently sited citrus trees and silver birches and enabling a bamboo grove to grow to such height, breadth and density that it could support a couple of families of pandas.

In the flush of new ownership, we decided to renovate, including moving the driveway from one side of the section to the other. We anticipated sunny days of satisfying physical work as we created our verdant paradise. After all, the garden had good, if neglected, bones.

The house was sited conveniently in the middle of the section suiting our plans to create a series of garden "rooms", divided by hedges or shrubberies and linked by curving paths which opened into vistas of flowering perennials, feature trees or sculpture.

You can probably guess the influence at work. A fascination with the early 20th-century English writers and artists belonging to the Bloomsbury Group led to the story of Vita Sackville-West and the garden she and husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson, built at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.

A visit in 1991 was inspirational. It was a drizzly, early spring day and the botanical glories of the garden were not yet on show, but the structure Sackville-West and Nicolson had created was all the more obvious.

The separate spaces made a smallish garden seem much larger and around each corner were the most delightful surprises. Each space had a personality of its own: the white garden was intimate, the orchard wild and expansive, the lime walk bursting with spring growth.

The question for us was, could we make Sissinghurst ideas work in a garden sited on the hinterland of Stoke? Over the last 20 years the answer is, sometimes. But often our best ambitions have led to frustration and we've cursed early planting decisions, like the aggressive ivy.

Some of my dearest ambitions have come to grief. Take herbaceous borders. My adventures with these highbrow horticultural symphonies taught me a lot about the relationship between dreams and reality.

I read Gertrude Jekyll and Penelope Hobhouse and fell in love with the idea of having my own sweeping borders, planted to move from cool to warm colours, with texture and height adding to their elegant architecture. I persuaded Steve to dig me two long beds 1.5 metres wide along two sides of a long lawn we'd created out of the old drive and scruffy car parking zone. So far, so good.

But I had not allowed for the difficulty or cost of obtaining the plants I wanted. And, like any keen newbie gardener, I wanted my border now. The colour scheme went out the window.

A kind friend let me dig up and divide some of her perennials. So I started with shasta daisies, black-eyed susans and penstamens with annuals to fill in the gaps - not quite the glory I had envisaged. Still, together they made a colourful show that first season.

Next, I learnt that herbaceous borders attract perennial weeds. In my weeding experience, nothing compares in strength with the grip creeping buttercup has on the earth. And liquid weeding, so loved by my husband, is impossible when the weed in question is growing among your favourite pink Alice Hindley penstamens.

I think the borders lasted five or six years. They sucked up barrow-loads of compost, kilos of Nitrophoska Blue and buckets of sheep pellets. They were doused in bales of pea straw, much of which ended up on the lawn, scratched out by birds and the neighbourhood cats who came to hunt and then stayed to do their business. And one damp summer the remaining straw sprouted. At least, we told ourselves, we had a crop of peas.

However, despite disasters, we're still having fun and we've learnt a few things over the years: plant trees first, plant to suit your soil and learn to be patient. Don't plant ivy, ever. Don't worry about weeds. After all, they're only plants in the wrong place.

And the positive side of an ex-herbaceous border? Great soil for the next project.